What I don't really get to, because I assumed my editor didn't want to wade through another potential 15k words, is what I played in preparation for Alien: Isolation. I didn't watch the original movie, though maybe I should have, even if I've seen it a couple times before. Didn't really consider anything that might be attached to the "horror" designation. As I saw above, not really into horror.
All the preamble to this game keyed in on the atmosphere. It looks great, it sounds great, but will it play great? I wasn't terribly concerned about that even. Playing great is rather subjective.
So, considering A: I before I had even stepped up to review it, I was reminded of two other games, Gone Home and The Stanley Parable. Reminded primarily because I'd had them both in my Steam list forever but hadn't gotten around to them yet. A: I, it had been said before release, would not let you kill the alien. You were outmatched on the offense, your only strategy as Amanda Ripley was to keep an eye on your surroundings and make note of all the best hiding places.
You aren't really hiding from anything in Gone Home, there aren't any enemies to kill. Just a young woman, returning to a home she did not grow up in because the family moved while she was away at college and exploring Europe. And no one is there. The house is empty. I knew this going in, and it was still scary as shit. At the beginning it was the dark, silent hallways. Strange sounds within, pounding rain on the windows, and locked mysterious doors. Though the lead character, Kaitlin, presumably knows a bit of the history going on here, much of what you and she discover is fresh gossip. Parents flailing as parents, lovers, creative and professional beings. A sister lost as a teenager in that typical, sad way, both aggressor and victim.
All of this is picked up as you wander the house and peek through their shit. Familiar ghosts that you left behind but somehow kept living and growing all the more. I imagine my feelings while wandering through the house of learning much of this for the first time were pretty close to what Kaitlin might have actually felt, which is a triumph of both the narrative and its design. By the end, my heart rate had a noted increase as I hurried to the attic to find out what had happened to Samantha. Not because I was being chased or fearful for my own life, but because I was genuinely concerned for my sister.
That's what good art/literature/game-design accomplishes, the transposition of the player/reader into another self so as to gain experiences they might not otherwise access.
Which is why I had such a good time running from the alien. Like Gone Home, the sound and interactive stage were constructed for peak immersion. Anytime I might be threatened to pull out of the narrative, some small click or gurgle or flash ahead drew me forward. It's hard to quit, because just getting to the save point is a thrill. Those save points are so spread out that I was less willing than ever to run and gun or play it loose. Many other games go to great lengths to impart the wisdom of carefully considered steps, but A: I had the gumption to carry through with the consequences of failure in that regard. In many ways it was Gone Home, in space, while being chased by a deadly alien who could, at best, only be distracted away for a moments.
The tension in each is palpable, but while I was afraid for my sister in Gone Home the alien had me sweaty and tense in fear of losing my own life. Which is strange, because in most other games such a situation is mostly an annoyance, a quick reset away. If I die in those games is the game's fault, so we say. But A: I was so clearly designed to put the player into weak, frail, human shoes that to expect otherwise would be a quick disappointment and quicker death.
But you would die, and on the next try, the alien would be a little more mysterious. Not unlike The Stanley Parable, though that mystery is clearly scripted and demands multiple paths. And it's always the user's choice that determines that path. At the beginning though, it doesn't really need to be the same thing twice, though.
You/Stanley die a lot in that game, if you so choose. You can run around willy-nilly and it won't necessarily help. You have to listen and react accordingly, though not as prescribed, which you learn as you play. One of my favorite elements of that game is that, randomly(?) it changes up the order of hallways and rooms. So as you die and die in an effort to plumb every crumb of the narrative, at one point the very beginning is just slightly different. I would feel both confused and energized, like, I've played this hallways so many dang times, there's no way that it was ever like this. But it still (usually) leads to the room with two doors, and there isn't much more than that.
You can run the eerily-light hallway over and over again, but the alien isn't predictable. Each scramble is mostly fresh, though of course the space station doesn't shift once you bleed out so you can get a feel for the hallways and where you need to go and the best spots for hiding as you crab-walk through. But the alien, it mixes things up. The humans and synthetics not so much, but they carry their brand of discomfort.
Mostly though, these three games have you walking and gawking and getting into it. Other titles get the blood pumping by jumps or hordes, but here, you're given a fascinating world with tense conditions and then let off the leash, more or less. I really appreciate being funneled into an experience that doesn't depend solely on my twitchiness or familiarity with how the best-selling games of yore worked.
I was late to the Zero, but that's ok since it's essentially in mid-season right now. And there's no use really describing the game to you, as it wouldn't really ruin the charm per se, but Kentucky Route Zero is one of those pieces of media you need to experience. Comparing it to similar works runs a bit of a risk as well, as it can't really be compared. Let's do it anyways.
Throughout Ulysses, you're led on a journey through Dublin but the reader doesn't shout out errant turns to Joyce the driver. This isn't entirely on the mark for KR0, each episode is delivered complete and only the most enterprising might sift through the code to make their own appendix. The road is paved but the player still has to make the turn.
Episode III of KR0 could start with any number of factors in and out of play, but regardless of what you've chosen from the many opaque options presented, eventually an electro-clash duo playfully hornswaggles your little group out to the Lower Depths tavern. If they don't have an audience, they don't play, you see.
At this point it's easy to be unsure of what to expect. Ambience and bluegrass rule the rest of the game's soundtrack so far, so when the simple drum machine and layered 80's Moog's rise like the tide, "Too Late to Love You" bridges the familiar music with the hypnotic narrative.
The lyrics here, along with those from the other songs with vocals, are not exactly bursting with sunshine. The inevitability of the void seems to be the primary focus. Episode III's soundtrack cover art is a tipped bottle with skeletons dancing in the puddle. Wasted time, squandered love, mistakes and regrets dominate, but even under all this pallor the song soars.
In the game, you choose the direction of the lyrics as "Too Late to Love You" unfolds. Things are built on your whim, and maybe it's best you went in not knowing this, but whatever, spoilers are bullshit. Because being unaware of this means you can't prepare, so maybe even in your making of this song you feel you chose poorly. Second guesses build until it's over, the desolate bar ringing out with synth, the chance to love you having passed.
The lyrics you choose don't give much wiggle room outside of lost love's lament, but the vocals belie the pain a little bit. There's that operatic, Bjork vocal swagger crouched in the sounds of Twin Peaks (not the first cross-reference between these two I'm sure), the pain that can't help but escape, but in that escape, relief. The darkness of night swells, but it's a kind of necessary darkness for the light to exist. It's too late to love you now, but love is on the table, and the tide always ebbs back.
You should also watch the video of the scene in action, it's a whole package here. A metaphor of live music/art's potential for transcendence, a rare and cherishable thing. Those dance moves. That dress. The peeling roof.
Pygmy Lush comes from a deep-rooted family tree, and their sound is fragmented even within this one band name. I came to them through Malady, while many others probably through pg.99, but the best of Pygmy Lush disintigrates the sound of all of their prior bands.
In the '90s, everyone was required to have a passionate opinion about Nirvana one way or the other, in the '00s we pretended they didn't exist, and now most acknowledge that respect is due.
This cover of "Serve the Servants" highlights what Pygmy Lush has pretty much mastered, breaking down a song's essense to the bare essentials. Their methods are perfectly suited for a Nirvana song since they're all exercises in pop-precision. As J Church said, "repetition is a cheap yet convincing / a cheap yet convincing disguise". Pygmy Lush removes the disguise and splays open the raw heart that was always Nirvana's source of power.
The bitter, cynical bite of the original takes on more of a slow, subtle poison in Pygmy Lush's version. Lyrics like:
"Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I'm bored and old
Self-appointed judges judge
More than they have sold"
already pretty difficult to misinterpret, become more of the lament that I feel they always were. Pygmy Lush, with their taste of success in pg.99, certainly understand the double-edged sword of teenage angst and hardcore loyalty. As a band though, Pygmy Lush definitely carries a resigned sense of age, the same sense found in the later verse:
"As my bones grew they did hurt
They hurt really bad
I tried hard to have a father
But instead I had a dad"
Tied again to the growing body of a teenager, stretching bones shift from being a sign of puberty to that of decline. Only age can offer the perspective offered here; a teenager suffers without a father but most likely doesn't recognize that loss until nearing the cusp of parenthood.
Which is what Pygmy Lush lays down throughout their version. The brief wail of teenage noise at the beginning then leads to a slow draw up through experience and life. A bitter splitting apart, friendship, lovers, family, it all breaks down, though the gentle guitar structure remains. Time marches, ebbs, builds, crescends. But the build up at the end is the kicker for me. We bawl through the pain of youth, the wail flares up again as we realize time lost, responsibilities creeping up on us, becoming our parents, serving the servants. Oh no.
The real pleasure in this song for me is that it's a subtle haunting. "A Good Day to Hide," another of my favorite Pygmy Lush jams, is more obviously dark, the cathartic expulsion of depression. But Nirvana's pop-chops were without peer, having studied the best, and the simple beauty of these melodies remain. Pygmy Lush lightly fractures them, exposing the sweet marrow in the bones.
There are a number of shows that I have convinced myself I went to, but the truth is probably that I just heard about it from someone. Such is memory at large, yes? So I can't remember if I ever saw Fort Collins's Tanger, the Rocky Mountain answer to AmRep. I feel like they should have opened for Planes Mistaken for Stars and Converge, though that was Keith's band Deadspeak, if only because that show was so altering for me, power of music yada yada.
Tanger wasn't at that show, and let's be honest, I wasn't there when they did play with At the Drive-In. That was probably on ATDI's tour for In/Casino/Out, which was too soon for me as I am often unaware of bands in their prime. But after one local show in JD's basement, I was going on and on about Relationship of Command, probably too much, and JD was like "oh, I went to see Tanger at the Starlight and that band opened. Their singer was nuts. He was totally sick but on stage anyways, climbing on everything, but mostly the bass cab so he could puke over the wall." This story has been overwrought in my mind, but ultimately one of many zany ATDI legends.
The key element in that story though is that JD wasn't there for ATDI, he went for Tanger, and Tanger is still who he best remembers from the night. Every region has their local heroes I guess, but I missed the Tanger boat for far too long. It wasn't until a trip to Kim's in NYC (R.I.P.) that I finally grabbed their full length, thinking "wonder what all the fuss was about?"
The Denver area is too far from either coast to have ever gotten the music press it deserved. Which, like the beginnings of DC, wasn't totally a problem as the scene did pretty well at sustaining. Sadly, the Dischord of Denver never really broke out of the region.
Also, as Justin Moyer wrote for the Washington Post, Brooklyn ruined everything. I mean, I don't know if they specifically took members of Tanger, but I agree with Moyer that the hyper-localization of Brooklyn sapped scenes everywhere. More importantly, however, is that Tanger existed in that mid-'90s-to-mid-'00s black hole, where small regional bands would end up, nothing known and no stories saved.
So I don't know much about Tanger other than this. The internet serves up a Westword article from '99 that tells more than I knew, and focuses on the band's interest in war. There's a review that plainly doesn't get it, "I wish there were more melodies". The melody is held down by the bass mostly; the guitars are meant to pummel relentlessly like a fully automatic turret.
Tanger doesn't just drill down, though. There's swing and variations, subtle shifts in tone. The mountainous West has the curious ability to be both incredibly generous but open to darkness. Less of a dichotomy and more of a spectrum. Sure, you can hear all the other noise-rock big names in between the notes, but Tanger had something special. Like many bands though, only the locals really knew.
It doesn't really help that the name is shared by two other non-US bands, so things are muddy. You can probably find the CD in most $1 bins, far under-priced.
Classic "should have saved" situation here, not going to lie. But let's power through it again anyways.
I wrote about Micah Towery's Whale of Desire for THEthe, complications aside. Such a fantastic book. I had no idea what to expect, from pure ignorance mostly, but it's a great read and you'd be wise to check it out.
However, I can't say the same for Metrico, which I wrote about on the KS tip, as you do. Strong design, great colors, but in the end I felt unmoved. And annoyed that I had to interact with the real world. Reminded me of how much I wanted to like Boktai but man finding sunlight is a chore.
Been out of the game for a spell, you know how it is. Also, I am just forgetful, so even though I haven't had anything terribly new posted for a while, there are a couple bits that I've neglected to share here. Silly me.
First, an enjoyable game in Marrying. Mr. Darcy, as I go on to point out in Kill Screen. One of the only games that Gina is interested in playing, which was practically the review.
I also played Hitman GO based on the recommendation of the internet. Nice, minimal, well-designed, and I stopped playing it immediately after finishing my review. A puzzle game dressed up as a board game you play on your mobile whatever. Yep.
Seriously, I mostly want to ramble about Netrunner, and hope to do so soon.
I've been busy. Too busy to update?! Very rude, I know. Apologies.
Back in February, I had a piece published on Kill Screen about Twenty Sided Store, a pretty awesome gaming store and space in Brooklyn. When visiting some homies down there over the new year, I pretty much demanded we go to this place, and we were lucky that it was open. It was magical! I had to tone down my positive vibes in writing this piece, but god damn I wish this store was up here.
And I can add, as a post-script to the piece, that Twenty Sided Store ran a strong D&D Next campaign at PAX East. So much fun! Our DM Leo was a gentleman and a scholar, and if nothing else, gave us the line: "As we say in Brooklyn, describe your kill." Gold.
Shortly after that, as I alluded to in the previous post, my review of Titanfall went up. Again, tried not to oversell. And some people think my comparison to True Detective was not appropriate. Those people are wrong. But dang, even a few months after turning that in, Titanfall still calls out to me. Which is such a strange feeling, as far as online games go, because they usually just make me anxious.
While playing Titanfall, when things got too intense, I would unwind with Retro Game Crunch. Haven't missed the NES so hard in a while, some classy, short, well-crafted games to wrench out some old emotions.
The review train keeps on rumbling through town. Switching tracks (but not metaphors), I've a couple new poetry reviews up over at THEthe poetry. First up is the latest chap from Brian Trimboli, a totally chill bro that you should let ice you sometime. Is it sad that to me "ice" pretty much only means "intrusion countermeasure electronics" now? Not sad. Glorious.
It's been a busy month of words about marginal things, culturally speaking. But since we play Boss Monster at least once, sometimes twice a week over at work since I got it, it's definitely something worth singing the praises of. So I sang them, over at Kill Screen, as I am wont to do.